Trains, pipelines and disasters

Every time I think of what happened in Lac-Mégantic, I have a hard time getting past the sense of total grief that a beautiful little town should have been victim of such a random, devastating and shocking event. It can really only be compared to a town being suddenly, inexplicably bombed in peacetime.

I live in a similar peaceful, pretty, small community. Sidney-by-the Sea is an idyllic spot on southern Vancouver Island (population 10,000), but here, as everywhere else in Canada, we feel as though there has been a death in the family. One of my Rotary friends, who is also on Sidney Council, Kenny Podmore, emailed yesterday to ask for my help as he organizes a fundraiser for Lac-Mégantic for the Monday of the Labour Day weekend. I am so grateful to have a positive, useful way to try to help that wounded community, with its heart ripped out for all the world to see.

Media pundits are busy saying what politicians should and shouldn’t say in times of crisis. I have a hard time faulting Tom Mulcair for saying what seems rather obvious. The legality of leaving that train, unattended, engine on, with 74 railcars full of light crude oil, perched in a spot where should brakes fail, gravity and momentum would send the train barrelling into the community below, was specifically approved by Transport Canada. It is far too early to know all the answers, but I think common sense dictates that some observations are obvious. The failure of the federal government under Stephen Harper’s watch is one of them.

But many other relatively disconnected points come to me and I want to share some of the ones that also (at least to me) fall in the category of blazingly obvious.

  • Pipeline proponents were jarringly quick to try to claim advantage for the pipeline debate. Their opportunism was in poor taste, but also was wrong. As far as I know, no one is proposing a pipeline from North Dakota to New Brunswick.  So opposing the Keystone or Enbridge projects has no bearing on that accident along that route.
  • Trains are generally speaking a very safe way to transport goods – as long as they are properly regulated.  On a percentage basis, pipelines have far more accidents (leaks) than trains.  True, no pipeline accident with bitumen and diluents (dilbit) or with crude or processed oil, could have an accident with so much immediate loss of life.  But that is not actually an argument for pipelines.  It is an argument for regulating pipelines and trains so that the risk of accident is reduced.
  • Municipal governments have a right to know what is moving through their towns.  Hazardous cargo should never be left unattended and should be (as far as is possible) diverted from town centres.
  • It strikes me as bizarre that when discussing terrorist threats no scenario is so far-fetched that law enforcement and the public purse should not be engaged to avert miniscule risks.  But in our day to day lives, more probable and larger risks are ignored because they fall under an area of economic-profitability.
  • The mania against regulation – the call for stream-lining and fast-tracking and industry self-regulation (across many fields and not just rail transport)  – needs to be replaced with a commitment to public safety and environmental protection.
  • Leaking pipelines can constitute their own brand of disaster in loss of life and livelihood.  The fact that pipelines cannot convert themselves into rolling bombs, but instead can destroy a river or farm through leaking noxious contaminants doesn’t make the latter an acceptable option.

The inquiry will take some time. The levels of liability, negligence, issues of criminal negligence, are all issues to be determined.  As the investigation is into a crime, there is the possibility of criminal charges and jail time.  An investigation of this magnitude needs to be respected.  No one should jump to conclusions.  However, sometimes the conclusions leap out on their own and to ignore them is to practice a level of politically-correct speech that defies common sense.